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The scene outside Gray's at around midnight on January 9, by Robert Sietsema

Historic Restaurant Preservation Plan: How It Might Work

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2013_historic_restaurants12.jpgDuring the recent Papayagate disaster, Greenwich Village's decades-old Gray's Papaya shut down due to a rent increase that went from $30,000 per month to a whopping, unconscionable $50,000 per month. Quite simply, no one could sell that many hot dogs. The outpouring of outrage was unprecedented, from those who regarded the stand-up eatery as an irreplaceable dining resource for cheap eats any time of the day or night, to those who saw it more sentimentally as a uniquely New York dining institution, a colorful gastro-monument that should have been preserved for future generations.

Gray's is being replaced by one of those expensive juice places, a franchise joint not likely to last very long at that location. (I give it nine months, tops.) But maybe the whole point was to get a faithful, long-lasting tenant out, since real estate interests paradoxically often prefer revolving-door tenancies: Each new lease in an up market represents greater profits.

Squeezing as much money out of a property despite any other consideration, known to real estate developers as the doctrine of "highest and best use," means that it doesn't matter if a tenant (if this case, a restaurant) is absolutely vital to a community and its history, only that the owner be able to squeeze the maximum profit possible out of a particular property. This was most recently seen with St. Vincent's, in the same neighborhood as Gray's, where an ancient and architecturally distinguished hospital essential to the medical health of the community was unceremoniously tossed to make way for luxury condos.

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At the time of Gray's demise, I tweeted there should be some sort of civic protection for beloved restaurants of cultural and historic significance — living museums of gastronomy, if you will. Many chefs, restaurateurs, and food writers — among them Mario Batali, Danny Meyer, and Pete Wells — tweeted their support for some sort of preservation program. Here is what such a program might look like.

Let's say we appoint a committee of three, consisting of a chef, a city councilperson, and a real estate representative, who are tasked with the responsibility of selecting a list of irreplaceable dining institutions that deserve to be officially protected. The committee can make choices themselves, and also take suggestions from the public. Let's start with 30 places as a pilot program.

When the lease expires at one of these establishments, or if the restaurant defaults on its lease, or suffers damage from a catastrophic weather event, or through unforeseen explosion, fire, or other damage, the committee leaps into action. If a lease is involved, it automatically mediates the negotiations. If necessary, the books of the restaurant will be examined, and a fair rent increase determined if a rent increase is found to be unaffordable. In the case of disasters, the committee will intervene with government agencies and private nonprofits to seek priority assistance.

If the restaurateurs who operate a place want to close it, successor lessees willing to continue in the tradition will be located, vetted, and the lease transferred. In other words, this committee will be charged with doing everything possible, including limiting rent increases to those determined fair, to keep historic places in business.

Landlords may oppose the program, reasoning that no one should be able to limit what they can do with their properties. But many city and state laws already do provide limits, including rent stabilization for residential properties, commercial zoning, Department of Buildings regulations, and the work of the Landmarks Preservation Commission over certain landmark zones and buildings.

Here are my nominations for restaurants, bars, and markets most worthy of being preserved, including several that may already be in danger. Please suggest your own — or dispute any of these — in the comments section below. Let's get the dialog started!



And let's not forget the last remaining branch of Gray's Papaya, on the Upper West Side…


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Note: Restaurants on this map are listed geographically.

1. Katz's Delicatessen

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205 E Houston St
New York, NY 10002
(800) 446-8364
Visit Website
Founded in 1888, Katz’s is the best Jewish deli in the city, with an antique interior to match, and a perpetual hubbub that could be found nowhere else but New York. [Photo: Facebook]

2. Totonno's Pizzeria Napolitano

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1524 Neptune Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11224
(718) 372-8606
This coal-oven darling dating to 1924 is the city’s best pizzeria, founded by Antonio “Totonno” Pero, the guy who invented pizza as we know it. [Photo: Bess Adler]

3. La Taza De Oro

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96 8th Ave
New York, NY 10011
(212) 243-9946
This 1950s Puerto Rican lunch counter, perfectly intact in every detail including formica counter and menu rotating in weekly cycles, is supremely redolent of Chelsea’s Latin past. [Photo: Robert Sietsema]

4. Arthur Avenue Retail Market

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2344 Arthur Ave
Bronx, NY 10458
Reminding us what the city’s retail markets were like back in the 1930s, when Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia founded them to reduce the number of pushcarts clogging the streets, Arthur Avenue Retail Market constitutes a museum of living food retail history, with a bonus salumeria and a Sicilian lunch counter inside. [Photo: Facebook]

5. Grand Central Oyster Bar

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89 E 42nd St
New York, NY 10017
(212) 490-6650
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The vaulted premises is already landmarked, why not the restaurant and its snaking lunch counter, including the oyster pan-roast contraptions? [Photo: Robert Sietsema]

6. Faicco's Italian Specialities

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260 Bleecker St.
New York, NY 10014
(212) 243-1974
This Apulian sausage maker is one of the few vestiges remaining of Italian Greenwich Village, and while we’re at it, shall we landmark the Dyker Heights branch, too? [Photo: Google Plus]

7. Keens Steakhouse

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72 W 36th St
New York, NY 10018
(212) 947-3636
Visit Website
Let’s landmark its mutton chop, and change the name back to the original “Chophouse,” too, at this 1885 meatery vital to theater history, with dining chambers and bar decorated in grand Victorian style. And don’t forget the Dutch clay pipes on the ceiling, so Rip Van Winkle. [Photo: Krieger]

8. Peter Luger Steak House

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178 Broadway
Brooklyn, NY 11211
(718) 387-7400
Visit Website
Whether you think it’s the world’s greatest steakhouse or not, this place was founded in 1887 when Williamsburg was a city unto itself, and it still has that Knickerbocker ambiance. [Photo: Krieger]

9. L&B Spumoni Gardens

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2725 86th St
Brooklyn, NY 11223
(718) 372-8400
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The name alone is worth preserving at this monument to Sicilian immigration to Brooklyn, where, come summer, the outdoor seating area feels like a scene from Grease. [Photo: Robert Sietsema]

10. Mitchell's Soul Food

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617 Vanderbilt Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11238
(718) 789-3212
One of the last remaining ancient African-American fried chicken parlors, in Prospect Heights. [Photo: Yelp]

11. Kalustyan's

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123 Lexington Ave
New York, NY 10016
(212) 685-3451
Visit Website
Irreplaceable resource for international groceries, organized as a labyrinthine spice museum. Scary Spice? Where else can you find dozens of types of black peppercorns? Cooking as we know it would be nearly impossible without Kalustyan’s. [Photo: Foursquare]

12. Sylvia's

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328 Malcolm X Blvd
New York, NY 10027
(212) 996-2669
A Harlem institution founded by Sylvia Woods in 1962, and one of the country’s foremost purveyors of “Soul Food” – a term that takes us back to the Civil Rights Era. [Photo: Facebook]

13. McSorley's Old Ale House

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15 E 7th St
New York, NY 10003
(212) 473-9148
Visit Website
One of the city’s most venerable saloons, this East Village mainstay was founded sometime between 1854 and 1862, depending on who you believe, and much of the lunch fare (a plate of cheese, bread, and raw onions, for example) reproduces workingmen’s fare of 150 years ago. [Photo: Foursquare]

14. Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden

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29-19 24th Ave
Astoria, NY 11102
(718) 274-4925
Visit Website
Located in Astoria, this Czech beer garden dates to 1892, and is still going strong. [Foursquare]

15. Ferdinando's Focacceria

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151 Union St
Brooklyn, NY 11231
(718) 855-1545
Evidence of the first wave of Sicilian immigration to New York, and partly offering the snacks appropriate to a Sicilian focacceria within sight of the original Red Hook docks, Ferdinando’s is 110 years young. [Photo: Facebook]

16. Delmonico's Bar & Grill

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56 Beaver St
New York, NY 10004
(212) 509-1144
Visit Website
The third iteration of the Delmonico’s empire represents one of the city’s earliest fine-dining establishments, still churning out a collection of dishes — like lobster Newburg and the Delmonico steak — invented there. [Photo: Robert Sietsema]

17. Brennan & Carr

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3432 Nostrand Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11229
(718) 769-1254
Visit Website
This stockade on Gravesend Neck Road is evidence of Irish cooking in the Borough of Kings, Brooklyn’s answer to L.A.’s French dip. Photos on the wall show the neighborhood when it was rural farmland. [Photo: Robert Sietsema]

18. Denino's Pizzeria Tavern

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524 Port Richmond Ave
Staten Island, NY 10302
(718) 442-9401
Staten Island’s most prized pizzeria started out as a stevedore’s bar in the 1930s. [Photo: Bess Adler]

19. Barney Greengrass

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541 Amsterdam Ave
New York, NY 10024
(212) 724-4707
Now a little down at the heels, Barney was once known as the Sturgeon King, like a character from Little Mermaid, at this Jewish preserved-fish spot. [Photo: Robert Sietsema]

20. Wo Hop Restaurant

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17 Mott St
New York, NY 10013
(212) 267-2536
Founded in the 30s, evidence of a style of Chinese-American eating now almost gone, this walk-down spot is the kind of place that has brought outsiders down to Chinatown for 100 years.[Photo: Krieger]

21. John's of Bleecker Street

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278 Bleecker St
New York, NY 10014
(212) 243-1680
Visit Website
One of the city’s sainted coal-oven pizzerias, with murals of the Bay of Naples and the carved initials of thousands of diners covering every surface, open since 1929. [Photo: Robert Sietsema]

22. Bamonte's

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32 Withers St
Brooklyn, NY 11211
(718) 384-8831
A house of Neapolitan eats founded by immigrants from Nola in 1900, now pinned beneath the BQE due to the whim of Robert Moses; reputedly the first restaurant in the country with an open kitchen, so mobsters could be sure no one was poisoning their food. [Photo: Krieger]

23. Eddie's Sweet Shop

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10529 Metropolitan Ave
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 520-8514
Visit Website
Century-old ice cream parlor in Forest Hills with antique wood fixtures and a marble soda fountain, beloved of generations of children and adults. No Baskin-Robbins or fro-yo place can begin to compare. [Photo: Robert Sietsema]

24. Nathan's Famous

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1310 Surf Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11224
(718) 946-2202
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King of the 24-hour hot dog joints, right across from the Coney Island subway terminal and a block from the Boardwalk.[Photo: Foursquare]

25. Nom Wah Tea Parlor

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13 Doyers St
New York, NY 10013
(212) 962-6047
Visit Website
Recently reverently hipsterized Chinatown tea shop on Doyers near the “bloody angle,” encompassing much Chinatown history as can be represented in a single institution. [Photo: Facebook]

26. Junior's Restaurant

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386 Flatbush Avenue Ext
Brooklyn, NY 11201
(718) 852-5257
Visit Website
Over-the-top beacon of late-night eats with a Jewish and Caribbean flair, a sort of Brandenburg Gate for Brooklyn. [Photo: Facebook]

27. Veniero’s Pasticceria & Caffe

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342 E 11th St
New York, NY 10003
(212) 674-7264
Visit Website
East Village Italian pastry shop dating to 1894, all marble and chrome, and a constant reminder of the Age of Sinatra. [Photo: Eater NY]

28. Lexington Candy Shop

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1226 Lexington Ave
New York, NY 10028
(212) 288-0057
Visit Website
Beloved of movie directors, this 1925 lunch counter slings an arcane micro-cuisine native to the Upper East Side, of which the jelly omelet is signature. And you can bet on the fine egg creams, too. [Bess Adler]

29. Killmeyer's Old Bavarian Inn

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4254 Arthur Kill Rd
Staten Island, NY 10309
(718) 984-1202
Visit Website
The dark antique woodwork around the bar, the stuffed stag heads, the German beer on tap, the waitresses in their dirndls, make this place seem like a wayside inn in Bayern, circa 1849, when the woodwork was carved.

30. Nordic Delicacies

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6909 3rd Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11209
(718) 748-1874
Reminder that Bay Ridge once harbored a community of Scandinavian mariners, with some very nice carryout meals. [Photo: Foursquare]

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1. Katz's Delicatessen

205 E Houston St, New York, NY 10002
Founded in 1888, Katz’s is the best Jewish deli in the city, with an antique interior to match, and a perpetual hubbub that could be found nowhere else but New York. [Photo: Facebook]
205 E Houston St
New York, NY 10002

2. Totonno's Pizzeria Napolitano

1524 Neptune Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11224
This coal-oven darling dating to 1924 is the city’s best pizzeria, founded by Antonio “Totonno” Pero, the guy who invented pizza as we know it. [Photo: Bess Adler]
1524 Neptune Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11224

3. La Taza De Oro

96 8th Ave, New York, NY 10011
This 1950s Puerto Rican lunch counter, perfectly intact in every detail including formica counter and menu rotating in weekly cycles, is supremely redolent of Chelsea’s Latin past. [Photo: Robert Sietsema]
96 8th Ave
New York, NY 10011

4. Arthur Avenue Retail Market

2344 Arthur Ave, Bronx, NY 10458
Reminding us what the city’s retail markets were like back in the 1930s, when Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia founded them to reduce the number of pushcarts clogging the streets, Arthur Avenue Retail Market constitutes a museum of living food retail history, with a bonus salumeria and a Sicilian lunch counter inside. [Photo: Facebook]
2344 Arthur Ave
Bronx, NY 10458

5. Grand Central Oyster Bar

89 E 42nd St, New York, NY 10017
The vaulted premises is already landmarked, why not the restaurant and its snaking lunch counter, including the oyster pan-roast contraptions? [Photo: Robert Sietsema]
89 E 42nd St
New York, NY 10017

6. Faicco's Italian Specialities

260 Bleecker St., New York, NY 10014
This Apulian sausage maker is one of the few vestiges remaining of Italian Greenwich Village, and while we’re at it, shall we landmark the Dyker Heights branch, too? [Photo: Google Plus]
260 Bleecker St.
New York, NY 10014

7. Keens Steakhouse

72 W 36th St, New York, NY 10018
Let’s landmark its mutton chop, and change the name back to the original “Chophouse,” too, at this 1885 meatery vital to theater history, with dining chambers and bar decorated in grand Victorian style. And don’t forget the Dutch clay pipes on the ceiling, so Rip Van Winkle. [Photo: Krieger]
72 W 36th St
New York, NY 10018

8. Peter Luger Steak House

178 Broadway, Brooklyn, NY 11211
Whether you think it’s the world’s greatest steakhouse or not, this place was founded in 1887 when Williamsburg was a city unto itself, and it still has that Knickerbocker ambiance. [Photo: Krieger]
178 Broadway
Brooklyn, NY 11211

9. L&B Spumoni Gardens

2725 86th St, Brooklyn, NY 11223
The name alone is worth preserving at this monument to Sicilian immigration to Brooklyn, where, come summer, the outdoor seating area feels like a scene from Grease. [Photo: Robert Sietsema]
2725 86th St
Brooklyn, NY 11223

10. Mitchell's Soul Food

617 Vanderbilt Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11238
One of the last remaining ancient African-American fried chicken parlors, in Prospect Heights. [Photo: Yelp]
617 Vanderbilt Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11238

11. Kalustyan's

123 Lexington Ave, New York, NY 10016
Irreplaceable resource for international groceries, organized as a labyrinthine spice museum. Scary Spice? Where else can you find dozens of types of black peppercorns? Cooking as we know it would be nearly impossible without Kalustyan’s. [Photo: Foursquare]
123 Lexington Ave
New York, NY 10016

12. Sylvia's

328 Malcolm X Blvd, New York, NY 10027
A Harlem institution founded by Sylvia Woods in 1962, and one of the country’s foremost purveyors of “Soul Food” – a term that takes us back to the Civil Rights Era. [Photo: Facebook]
328 Malcolm X Blvd
New York, NY 10027

13. McSorley's Old Ale House

15 E 7th St, New York, NY 10003
One of the city’s most venerable saloons, this East Village mainstay was founded sometime between 1854 and 1862, depending on who you believe, and much of the lunch fare (a plate of cheese, bread, and raw onions, for example) reproduces workingmen’s fare of 150 years ago. [Photo: Foursquare]
15 E 7th St
New York, NY 10003

14. Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden

29-19 24th Ave, Astoria, NY 11102